- 14 Aug 20
A week after the release of his debut EP, Uly sits down to talk about stage fright, early influences and songwriting.
Uly and I have taken up residence on a decaying park bench in St. Stephen's Green, having been ousted from a nearby café at closing time. "I was in the middle of trying to explain what I like about playing in bands," he reminds me, deftly assembling a rollie.
"I have a tendency to get stuck on ideas. Sometimes you need someone to give you a kick in the arse. I'll occasionally get into a little guitar loop and realise I've been playing the same thing for two hours and have ten seconds of a track.
"I enjoy being in bands where the work is distributed evenly amongst all parties and there isn't one apex," he says. "To a certain extent, you learn to deal with your own ego and other people's egos."
The Dubliner spent years playing in the metal and hardcore community before abandoning band life for his solo project. There are a few relics left over from those days – a small set of spacers that adorn his earlobes and a persistent love of Fall Out Boy's 2003 debut Take This To Your Grave, to name one or two.
"It was a time in my life that I'm happy has passed, but it's nice to look back on," he says cautiously. "I've said this to a couple close friends who would have been involved in that scene, but part of me doesn't like who I was back then.
"At the same time, it was character-building. I cut my teeth playing gigs, met some deadly people and got to do some really cool stuff. We were only kids, and it was a time of steep learning curves. You're surrounded by people who are much older than you, and who have seen and done a lot more. Part of you wants to fit in and be on the same level with these guys. Everyone – for the most part – is treating you like an adult."
At the other end of the tunnel, Uly is fresh from releasing his debut solo EP, if you were a day, you'd be sunday – songs to go walking to. His modus operandi is now lo-fi soul pop. Dusty production, warm horn sections and wavering falsetto are all present on the delightful six-track EP that the singer-songwriter produced himself.
It appears to be his moment, as an increasing number of artists move away from rigid genre lanes and experiment with combining modernism and nostalgia. "I used to listen to loads of Motown," he recalls of his early influences. "I would have revisited that stuff from childhood. I managed to see Lee Fields and The Expressions live at Primavera a couple years ago, and I was like, 'that's what I want to do.' Everyone around me was in such good form – happy faces, everyone was grooving. I wanted my music to have that effect on people.
"Also what your man Ruban from Unknown Mortal Orchestra did with his production and his vocals – how he structured his sonic landscape. All of a sudden there was a freedom, where a song didn't have to pop or be crystal clear. I struggle to mix with clarity, and to still have a song that sounds good without that clarity was refreshing."
Does he miss gigs? "Yeah, I do. For me, gigs have been more recreational than anything else," he says. "I get really bad stage fright."
How does one deal with that, when you're front and centre? "I pretend it's not happening," he laughs. "I actually played classical guitar for years, and my hands used to shake really badly. I used to do competitions and concerts, so I didn't have anything else to lean on, and my hands were going 90. What happens now is that I get nerves and it affects my breathing, which affects the clarity of my vocal."
It's surprising to find that if Uly had his own way, if you were a day might have been entirely instrumental. Luckily, it's harder to make money without words. "I'm sure a lot of artists struggle with the validity of what they're trying to say, and whether or not it's of substance," he says.
"I tend to be very introspective when I write. Most of the time I'm trying to figure out what's going on in my head. Those are the themes that make their way into my work, and sometimes I just want to say something important. But I don't want to say something for the sake of it. There's a lot going on in Dublin locally – or even Ireland nationwide – that I could talk about, but I suppose I feel ill-equipped to do so.
"I'm not smart with my lyrics, I'm not a storyteller," he says offhandedly. Most of his listeners would disagree, but words of praise tend to send the singer-songwriter into frenzied panic, so I let the comment slide. "It's also hard because I'm not bouncing off a producer or anyone else, it comes out of my head and there's nobody around to tell me if it's good or not. I'll turn to my succulent and be like, 'what do you think?'"
Luckily, the succulent isn't the only entity responding. Only days before we meet, Uly received word that one of his singles, 'cold water', had hit one million Spotify streams. That is humbling for any artist, although it would be impossible for Uly to rely on Spotify for his living. When I ask him about the CEO's recent comments, he says: "He's coming from a perspective of making music a commodity as opposed to having it as an art form, that should be allowed to flourish in its own time scale.
"To me, there needs to be a restructure from the top down about how artists are paid, and how the industry treats its artists, because at the moment it serves relatively well for people who are pushing high numbers and who will always be relevant, but it doesn't support artists that aren't already killing it."
As for staying relevant, Uly's happy to simply be along for the ride at the minute. "I obviously still want to be doing this when I'm 40, 50, whatever. But I don't want to have to force myself to be relevant, and I don't want to impose myself on people."
Listen to if you were a day, you'd be sunday – songs to go walking to below.